Another entertaining entry in director and co-writer Yoji Yamada's beloved "Tora-san" film series, Tora-san's Island Encounter (1985) doesn't particularly break any new ground but it's a pleasant visit with familiar characters nonetheless. The screenplay references and somewhat reworks Sakae Tsuboi's famous novel Twenty-Four Eyes, later made into an equally popular and acclaimed movie by Keisuke Kinoshita in 1954, one that beat out Seven Samurai on Kinema Jumpo's "Best Ten" list that year and did nearly as well at the box office.
Released in Japan as Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Shibamata yori ai wo komete, or "It's Tough Being a Man - Best Wishes from Shibamata," this 36th entry opens in Shibamata, the old-fashioned Tokyo neighborhood where Tora-san's (Kiyoshi Atsumi) family runs a traditional sweets shop. At the small printing factory next door, Umetaro (Hisao Dazai), better known as "Tako" ("Octopus"), is beside himself with worry after his adult daughter, Akemi (Jun Miho) up and leaves her new husband and no one can find her.
A month goes by and in a funny scene Tako pleads for her to contact him on a televised morning news show, gumming the whole thing up when he's overcome with emotion. But it does prompt Akemi to telephone Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Tora-san's sister, who sends her wayward brother to fetch Akemi from a hotel in Izu.
Reluctant to return to her typically workaholic husband, Tora-san indulges Akemi's desire to visit a scenic, volcanic island off the coast, Shikine. During the ferry ride, Tora-san meets 11 young men and women returning home for a school reunion and specifically to visit their popular primary school teacher, Machiko Shimazaki. They invite Tora-san to join their party, which reminds everyone of Twenty-Four Eyes, though since Tora-san has especially beady little eyes he suggests, "Maybe 23-and-a-half."
Tora-san imagines Shimazaki Sensei to be a white-haired old woman, but since she was only in her early twenties when she started teaching, the beautiful Machiko (Komaki Kurihara) is now just 35, and of course Tora-san immediately falls in love. Meanwhile, the virtually abandoned Akemi has befriended Shigeru (Ryuzo Tanaka), the innkeeper's son, who likewise falls in love with her.
Typical of the series, Tora-san's Island Encounter offers many fine scenes that dig into the shared psyche of the Japanese, in this case predominantly the nostalgia for one's schooldays (in Japan, attending class reunions and paying homage to former teachers is a Big Deal, a mix of formality and structure with unbridled sentimentality) and also the eternal conflict of younger generations moving from their boring, predestined rural and/or remote farmlands/islands/mountains to a more exciting life in the big city. Exemplifying this thinking are Akemi and Shigeru: she finds Shikine an island paradise after growing up in stifling, overcrowded Tokyo, while he wishes he could pack up and move to Tokyo.
Jun Miho appeared in seven "Tora-san" movies before Hidetaka Yoshioka's character, Tora-san's nephew Mitsuo, more or less took its place. Akemi is the atypical Japanese wife: exceedingly unladylike, she speaks her mind and makes no effort to display the kind of reserved, Audrey Hepburn-like poise generally expected of Japanese housewives. That she would just run off and disappear isn't that shocking for the character, but would be for most every other Japanese woman. In later films Mitsuo's socially dysfunctional teenager, in many ways a Tora-san in the making, would function much the same way.
Machiko gets her own rich backstory. During the third act we're introduced to Fumito (Takuzo Kawatani), a widower whose late wife was Machiko's childhood friend. Their relationship is told tenderly and realistically, making a nice little vignette.
And the film has a lot of laughs. As had become a tradition by this time, Tora-san's Island Encounter opens with a dream sequence. This time Tora-san dreams he's Japan's first astronaut (making the cover of Time in the process), and is about to be launched in a big NASA rocket. He decked out in a NASA flight suit, though he's still wearing setta, Japanese traditional sandals (!). There's also a delightful scene where Shibamata's old Buddhist monk (played throughout the series by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) is trying to give some American tourists directions in English - so badly the bemused Americans wonder what language he's speaking.
The film was relatively successful. It and Yamada's next film, Final Take (Kinema no tenchi) both made 1986's list of top-grossing domestic films, with many members of the films' cast and crew, virtually identical on both films, nominated for numerous awards.
Video & Audio
Alas, Tora-san's Island Encounter is 4:3 letterboxed (the film was shot in Panavision) and not 16:9 enhanced. It's obviously taken from an analog tape source that even betrays a few video wrinkles once or twice. Blame Shochiku, the film's owner in Japan for not providing Panorama with clones of their 16:9 enhanced digital masters. In America studios routinely share masters with varied distributors, but in Japan they often gouge licensees twice, first for the rights, then for a superior cloned transfer, for which they might demand upwards of half a million yen (about $5,000). The mono sound is okay, as are the acceptable English subtitles, provided by the Japan Foundation. Optional Chinese subtitles are also available.
None - just a booklet with the same onscreen director's biography and filmography (in both Chinese and English).
In a rather alarming development, Panorama hasn't announced any new Tora-san DVDs for more than a year, though boxed sets of the earlier films are now being released. There's still about 10 more titles to go, and it would be a terrible shame if Panorama's agreement with Shochiku had soured, expired, or something. In the meantime, Tora-san's Island Encounter makes a good if not great introduction to the series, especially if you're already familiar with Keisuke Kinoshita early postwar masterpiece from which it's inspired.
Note: This film follows Tora-san's The Go-Between (1985), and is followed by Tora-san Bluebird Fantasy (1986).
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest books, Japanese Cinema and The Toho Studios Story, are now available for pre-order.